Chicago Blackhawks fans showing up in force at Bridgestone Arena, Saturday's match with the Predators took on the feel of a playoff game.
As close as the Western Conference standings are – not to mention the Central Division – it's possible that these two foes could meet in the postseason, as they did in 2010.
But on Saturday, Nashville took advantage of a tired Chicago team and thumped the Blackhawks 5-2, cramming the division standings even tighter -- only five points separate fourth-place Nashville and first-place Detroit, which owns the most points in the League.
Nashville, which entered the day tied for the eighth-most points in the League and yet stood fourth in the division, won for the 10th time in 12 games. Chicago, which beat Florida 3-1 at home on Friday and arrived here late, owing to a snowstorm, entered the day with the League's top record. The Blackhawks lost for the first time in regulation in eight games (5-1-2), allowing the Red Wings to move a point ahead of them in the division – and League – standings with a shootout win over Columbus.
"It had a playoff feel, yeah, it did," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "It absolutely did. I don't know if we came out with more intensity, but the building was ramped-up from the get-go, which doesn't hurt the home team, I know that. And Chicago has that advantage every game. It was good. That just means it's a good rivalry. Nashville's a great destination to come to, so we'll take the Chicago people's money. I know that -- chamber of commerce thing."
With 20-goal scorer Patrick Sharp already out with a wrist injury, Chicago captain and leading scorer Jonathan Toews played his final shift 12:52 into the second period. Toews was slashed on his left hand by Florida's Eric Gudbranson during Friday's win. After the game, coach Joel Quenneville said Toews is "day to day."
"We'll know more over the next day or so, but he didn't finish," Quenneville said.
Down 1-0 in the first period, Nashville struck for four consecutive goals to wrest the game away from Chicago. Behind the League's No. 2 power play unit, the Preds tied the game with 2:41 left in the period and Chicago's Andrew Shaw in the penalty box for interference. Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis wristed a puck at the net from just inside the blue line and teammate Craig Smith deflected the shot, keeping Chicago goalie Corey Crawford from being able to glove it. With Crawford sprawled to the ice outside the blue paint, Smith shoveled the puck into an empty net. For Smith, who was selected to compete in All-Star Weekend, it was his 10th goal but only his second in 20 games.
Defenseman Kevin Klein put Nashville ahead to stay when he scored a fluky goal from the red line at 5:15 of the second period. Klein dumped the puck towards the goal; it bounced about five feet in front of Crawford and skittered past him.
"I just tried to get it on net, throw a little English on it," Klein said. "You don't see those go in too often because other guys are changing. You know you always have to thank the hockey gods for one of those."
Said Crawford: "It took a funny bounce. I probably could have come out and played it, but I was going for the rim and he faked it. There was nothing I could do about it."
Patric Hornqvist helped to make it 3-1 by doing a nice job keeping the puck in along the right wall just inside the blue line. With a quick pass to David Legwand, he trapped a number of Blackhawks high in the zone, creating a 2-on-1 down low. Legwand muscled the puck across to Colin Wilson, who swatted it into an open net at 11:14.
Sergei Kostitsyn scored his seventh goal in 1-0 games this month to put Nashville ahead 4-1 with 3:57 left in the period. Mike Fisher sent him in alone and he faked Crawford to the ice before roofing a forehand shot.
"I think we're doing a good job on the forecheck," Kostitsyn said of his line with Fisher, who won 10 of 14 faceoffs, and Martin Erat. "First of all, we have to play good defense and if you play good defense, good things will happen on offense."
That was the end of the night for Crawford, who was replaced by Ray Emery after allowing four goals on 17 shots.
In the first period, Chicago's Marian Hossa showed why he was named to the All-Star team with the way that he scored the game's first goal – beating Nashville All-Star defenseman Shea Weber one-on-one to do it. Hossa raced through the slot and sold Weber on a move to the outside. Weber reacted by moving his feet and Hossa quickly stickhandled inside past him and put a backhander around goalie Pekka Rinne with 4:51 left in the first period. It was Hossa's 19th goal of the season and Chicago's second and final shot of the period.
Hossa became the third Hawk to reach the 20-goal plateau when he beat Rinne on a breakaway 48 seconds into the third period.
"I'm not sure if (Nashville) played last night, but that shouldn't be an excuse at all," Hossa said. "They were hungrier. They had more shots than us and we have to learn from this one and get back in a couple of days."
Hornqvist got his 13th of the season, tying him for the team lead, on a deflection at 3:08.
The teams meet again on Tuesday in Chicago – the last game for both teams before the break.
"Obviously, against Chicago, we have a little bit of a chance to catch them," said Rinne, who made 20 saves. "I think any time you play a division game, those are bigger. Every game is big, but those are huge games."